Sexuality Policy Watch

Article Newsletter N.14 – Stella

The Paradoxical Geopolitics of Recriminalizing Homosexuality in Uganda: One of Three Ugly Sisters

Stella Nyanzi*

Uganda’s re-criminalization of homosexuality is not an isolated case, but rather part of a larger contemporary trend of homophobic legal reversals. Uganda, Nigeria and India are the three ugly sisters who recently ushered into place repressive laws that re-criminalize specific forms of expressing same-sex desire, love, sexualities and eroticism. Born through moments of nationalist struggle to gain flag independence from their singular colonizer – Britain, these three ugly sisters each inherited colonial penal codes that criminalize ‘sex against the order of nature’. British prudery prevalent within the Victorian era of expanding empire and manifest through anti-buggery laws, informed the blue-print for encoding laws in the statute books of these colonies prior to their gaining sovereignty. The combined paradoxical vulgarity of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014), Nigeria’s Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (2013), and India’s (2013) overturning of the decision on Section 377 of the Penal Code is more pronounced in light recent developments in England and Wales of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act (2013) which yielded the first marriages  on 29th March 2014. The vulgar paradox is that while the former colonial master has freed himself of all legal shackles opposing the equal citizenship rights of same-sex loving individuals living under his jurisdiction, these former British colonies are stuck with the homophobic colonial legacy written with repressive ink in their powerful statute books.

This metaphor of the three ugly sisters – Uganda, Nigeria and India, born to a powerful prudish homo-prejudiced father – Britain who has metamorphosed with age into a handsome liberal pro-homosexuality United Kingdom, highlights the intricate connections, continuities, comparisons and contrasts within the politics of international relations governing (homo)sexualities in the world today. In this essay, I explore salient global-local features at the nexus of power, law, religion and sexualities that are brought into sharp relief by the politics of legislating against homosexuality in Uganda. How do recent legal reforms in the regime governing human sexualities within the Ugandan nation relate to the multiple and diverse developments in the global arena of LGBTIQ rights, wellbeing and citizenship?

Protecting State Sovereignty

Public opinion polls (their biased methodologies notwithstanding) reveal that an overwhelming majority of Uganda’s population supports the Anti-Homosexuality Act which President Yoweri Museveni assented to on 24th February 2014. This support was illustrated by the jubilant throng that participated in a National Parade and Thanksgiving Prayer Rally held at Kololo Independence grounds on 31st March 2014. Escorted by police officers and military personnel, the marchers chanted anti-gay slogans interlaced with religious choruses as they stomped through a section of Kampala city. Thereafter, they indulged in victory speeches, music and prayers thanking God for the homophobic law. Organized by the Inter Religious and Cultural Leaders Alliance (IRCLA), this national thanksgiving event aimed at publicly thanking the president – who was also the Guest of Honor – for being brave in the face of international pressure and assenting to this piece of legal reform. Many marchers held posters, banners, and placards variously praising Yoweri Museveni and some leading anti-gay campaigners, for saving the future of Uganda’s youths by fighting homosexuality.

The president responded to this praise by reiterating his relatively recent commitment to champion the Anti-Homosexuality Act as a vital tool in the war against cultural imperialism. Several public officials, legislators, religious leaders and youths at the forefront of galvanizing efforts towards the politicization of their anti-gay movement appropriated the idiom of ‘protecting Uganda’s sovereignty’ from the corrupting evil influences of neo-imperialism and neo-colonialism represented by the widespread imagination of a ‘Gay Agenda’. At this national celebratory event, fighting against homosexuality was staged and projected as the duty of patriots. Anti-gay activists justified their homophobia by projecting themselves as nationalists embroiled in the defence of Uganda’s sovereignty.

Presenting the public opposition of homosexuality as patriotic nationalism reinforces the alienation of homosexuality as a foreign practice which is un-African and thus not indigenous to Uganda. Sugar-coating homophobia with nationalism is a potent strategy for garnering votes in the forthcoming 2016 local elections. Convincing the polity to re-elect the incumbent president and his ruling party is a difficult but critically essential duty considering that Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement has been in power for almost thirty years, but will want another terms of service in order to partake of recently discovered virgin wells of oil harboured within Ugandan territory.

While the rhetoric of protecting Uganda’s sovereignty was widely spewed at local audiences within the country, it was mostly hurled at foreign leaders including Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and David Cameron who either challenged or queried Uganda’s leadership for supporting the harsh recriminalization of homosexuality. Notably, when President Museveni changed from his original stance of delaying the enactment of the anti-gay bill into law because Uganda needed more time for scientists to inform the debate, he publicly declared that he was further persuaded to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Act (2014) because he sought to protect the sovereign wishes of Ugandans working against the recruitment of Ugandan youths into the foreign practices of homosexuality. The Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda, Rebecca Kadagga also used the idiom of protecting Uganda’s sovereignty when she was challenged by Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird during the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly held in Quebec at the end of 2013. Pastor Martin Ssempa, a leading proponent of Anti-Homosexuality efforts in Uganda always presents homosexuality as an imposition of decadent western mores and the fight against homosexuality as a nationalist project to protect the sovereign laws of the land; i.e. the laws of God, nature and culture.

The paradox within the history of Africa’s geography is the very fact that present-day Uganda is a colonial creation. The national borders and boundaries of Uganda were first drawn up during the scramble for Africa that led to the partition of the continent between her greedy colonizers. Simplistic defense of Uganda’s sovereignty by fighting homosexuality which is erroneously tainted as a foreign imposition is not only buying into colonial constructions of a pure heterosexual Africa but also failing to critique the colonial creation of contemporary African nations such as Uganda.

The Ambivalence of Foreignness

In public discourse and debates about the homosexuality question in Uganda, both pro-homosexuality and anti-homosexuality factions appropriate the alienating label of ‘foreignness’. The majoritarian anti-homosexuality advocates assert that homosexuality is alien to indigenous ethos, against African cultures, and thus un-African. They claim that it is a foreign imposition that came from either the decadent West during colonialism, exploration and Christianization, or else from the exotic East during slave trade, the building of the railway by Indian coolies and Mohammedization. Furthermore, the anti-gay lobby in Uganda desists from contemporary advocacy for human rights which informs LGBTIQ activism because they believe it is a foreign ideology aimed at universalizing western ideals, foregrounding individuality and normalizing degenerate minority rights that would pollute local mores and corrupt indigenous values. Consequently, local LGBTIQ activists who appropriate human rights frameworks of advocacy and who form alliances with western, international or other foreign pro-gay rights allies are vehemently opposed in public.

On the other hand, the minority pro-gay rights advocates equally appropriate the othering label of foreignness by highlighting that while homophobia is foreign to Uganda, homosexuality existed in several pre-colonial African societies including prominent kingdoms, chiefdoms and societies that form present-day Uganda. They explain that intolerance of same-sex sexualities was introduced into Uganda when colonial administrators codified the law. Anti-Homosexuality statutes were introduced into the Penal Code as ‘sex against the order of nature’ by colonial outsiders. The criminalization of homosexuality is highlighted as part of Uganda’s colonial legacy from the British colonizers. In this regard, pre-colonial histories of same-sex conducts are reclaimed from heterosexist archives and historical records that previously silenced, invisibilized, underplayed or altogether erased this evidence. For example they are reclaiming and reinserting the queer nature of Buganda kingdom’s royal palace in which the monarchical Kabaka Mwanga was known to have same-sex relations with several of his royal pages. Reclaiming Kabaka Mwanga’s same-sex sexuality, necessarily emphasizes the queerness of the historical events of martyrdom and canonization of the royal pages who rebelled against their ruler’s demands for same-sex intimacies after they converted to Christianity which condemned homosexuality as the ‘sin of Sodom and Gomorrah’.

Continuities of the colonial importation of homophobia are revealed by foreign conservative Christian rightist preachers who fly into Uganda to galvanize and strengthen mobilization of anti-homosexuality efforts. Analyses of the local Ex-Gay Movement highlight that conservative pastors and politicians who believe in Christian exorcism of homosexuality and reparative therapies for homosexuals are largely influenced and supported by American Christian Rightists. In spite of impassioned arguments made about the agency of Uganda’s local homophobes, funds and ideologies for the Anti-Homosexuality campaigns in Uganda can be traced back to America and Europe among conservative advocates of the Family Life agenda which opposes the so-called Gay Agenda.

Rethinking the Politics of Economic Sanctions

When the Anti-Homosexuality Bill was first tabled in parliament in October 2009, several western countries publicly threatened to withdraw bilateral aid from the development funds allocated to Uganda. International organizations also threatened to cut their multilateral donations. This international pressure was partly responsible for the subsequent reduction in momentum and stalling of the legal reform process which was drawn out to four years and four months. When the Anti-Homosexuality Act became law, some foreign donor countries and international organizations took action by cutting or freezing their aid coming into the country. Others redirected their bilateral contributions away from the public fund and into the private sector and civil society organizations. These countries include Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands.

The cutting of foreign aid specified for development programmes was utilized by the anti-homosexuality factions within Uganda, as proof for the foreignness and neo-imperialism of homosexuality. The threats to withdraw economic aid and enforce economic sanctions that leaders of several Western countries issued to Uganda were re-interpreted as autocratic threats to Uganda’s sovereignty by wicked representatives of former colonizers and current neocolonialists. The question of foreign aid, as it played out within the homosexuality debates in Uganda, highlighted the superficial hypocrisy within our politicians’ rhetoric which overemphasized the need to protect our country’s sovereignty and yet Uganda’s public budget was greatly dependent on foreign aid donations from the western world.

While the threat of economic sanctions is a great tool for asserting international pressure, the actual implementation of these sanctions is fraught with challenges. For example the week that United States of America threatened to redirect its foreign aid away from Uganda’s government in response to the signing of the Anti-Homosexuality Act also included public media coverage of American military aid and support coming into the country to help in the fight against rebels led by Joseph Kony. Furthermore, retracting donor aid from the public purse of developing countries mainly affects the lower classes and social masses who depend on publicly-funded services including health, education, security, transportation, and markets for their agricultural produce. Public officials and legislators directly responsible for legislating do not need public services because they can afford to access them from the private sector.

The Problematic Paradox of Transnational LGBTIQ Alliances

Feeding into the stereotypical caricature of LGBTIQ advocates as colonized agents of westernization and neo-imperialism, many pro-homosexuality activists in Uganda base their campaigns solely upon the need to protect the human rights of sexual minorities. This approach is widely attacked by opponents within the anti-homosexuality camps because they argue that human rights are based on Western ideologies which prize individual freedoms and liberties over communal responsibility which is an African principle. Alliances formed with partners from Europe and America are heavily criticized for imposing western ideals. Universalized strategies and symbols of LGBTIQ activism are flagged as signs of foreignness. However, it is important to highlight that LGBTIQ activism in Uganda is as much local as it draws from transnational support.
Writing off homosexuality in Uganda as un-African and thus a foreign imposition is futile. It is impossible to deny the pre-colonial as well as contemporary manifestations of same-sex sexualities in Uganda. Solely blaming foreigners for stoically spreading homosexuality as the new imperialistic agenda is insisting on an erasure of local indigenous variants of homosexualities. The visibility, articulation and presence of local indigenous same-sex loving individuals in Uganda defiantly asserts claims over Ugandan queerness; a queerness that is indigenous and genuine to the contemporary Ugandan individuals and groups that claim their rights, space(s) and recognition as homosexual Ugandan citizens and nationals.


The geopolitics of contemporary repressive legal reforms that recently recriminalized aspects of homosexuality highlights that homophobia is not a bounded form of oppression which respects cartographic national borders. There are historical linkages and continuities in the colonial legacy of outlawing localized forms of same-sex desire, eroticism, behaviour and sexualities. Uganda, Nigeria and India share the same colonizer whose administrators transposed Victorian prudishness and homophobia that were codified as anti-buggery laws into the new territories acquired during conquests undertaken during the expansion of empire. Thus the current criminalization of same-sex sexualities points towards the depths of an entrenched colonized mentality replicated within the national psyche and sub-conscience of national legislators, judiciary and executives who nonetheless claim to be anti-colonial, post-colonial and opposed to neo-imperialisms. It is important to expand our queer scholarship from specific micro-studies confined to singular national contexts to multi-country comparative analyses, for example a comparison between these three countries’ treatment of homosexual subjectivities and citizenship. Furthermore, considering that legislators in Nigeria and Uganda recently passed strict statutes further strengthening aspects of same-sex sexualities, how do contextual factors within these two African countries relate – if at all?

Sovereignty of developing countries within the wider global politics raises important critical questions about relative power and powerlessness. How sovereign is Uganda? What does Uganda’s sovereignty mean? How can elitist claims of Uganda’s sovereignty be used to inclusively protect the citizenship, rights and wellbeing of minorities within the country? The hollow public rhetoric of protecting Uganda’s sovereignty from the supposedly penetrating influences of Western decadence, foreign individualism, and corrupting neo-imperialisms represented by homosexuality surprisingly carries great currency among audiences both at home and abroad. Using the power of the rhetoric of protecting their country’s sovereignty, gullible Ugandans are recruited in their masses into fighting against homosexuality. Many individuals buy into the projected nationalistic venture. They willingly and dogmatically oppose homosexuality because they perceive of their homophobic actions as patriotism. Foreign critiques on the other hand are immobilized and paralyzed by the pointed accusations that they are undermining Uganda’s sovereignty when they challenge the politicization of anti-homosexuality campaigns. However, it is important to highlight that a country’s claims to sovereignty should neither validate the legislating of statutes that violate human rights of minorities nor allow specific countries to contravene their international obligations and commitments. Sovereignty is always relative; especially when a country is dependent on foreign donations to support her national budget.

Finally, the un-Africanness of homosexuality is a powerful and popular argument that several actors virulently deploy in their actions to oppose same-sex sexualities. Although variously flawed, the widespread claim that homosexuality is un-African renders the practice as foreign, alien, other, and thus outsider. The thesis that homosexuality is un-African attempts to fix rigid boundaries around what is African versus what is not. As highlighted above, the “African” versus “foreign” criteria for exclusion and inclusion are appropriated by both the pro-homosexuality and anti-homosexuality camps in Uganda. Thus analyses that dwell only on either the Africanness or the un-Africanness of homosexuality and homophobia in Uganda are partial, lacking in depth, skewed, overly simplistic and unrepresentative of the ethnographic reality on the ground. Homosexuality is as African as it simultaneously is un-African in its variants, just as homophobia is as foreign as it is indigenous in its varied manifestations. Both homosexuality and homophobia are human qualities that are found in both African and non-African individuals, groups of people and societies. What is important is the critical understanding of the appropriations of the geopolitics of both homosexuality and homophobia.

* Stella Nyanzi is a medical anthropologist and post-doctoral research fellow based at Makerere Institute of Social Research. She is interested in ethnographic research about culture, health, sexuality and politics.

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